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Does Virtual Reality Harm Visual Memory Formation?

Virtual reality (VR) technology has received an aggressive push in recent years in terms of integration into the education sector. Whilst it has given rise to innovative learning experiences, without doubt, not much effort has gone into researching the impact of VR tools on learning. A new study conducted in Japan is pointing towards VR potentially hampering effective visual memory creation. The study also suggests that technology can also lead to poor learning outcomes in some cases.

The study laid a strong focus on the differences in retention of visual memory between the active and passive forms of VR. Active VR refers to scenarios in which a head-mounted display (HMD) reacts to subjective movements, letting users thoroughly examine an environment from different point-of-views. Conversely, passive viewing refers to an HMD offering a singular and affixed view, without any consideration for the head movements of users.

40 individuals participated in the experiment and were split evenly into groups subjected to active and passive scenarios. Each of them viewed a video shot within a museum setting and were shown 10 paintings each from two famous baroque-style artists Nicolas Poussin and Paul Rubens. The study subjects had to complete several memory test sets, right after viewing the feature and two weeks later. According to the experiment’s findings, both the active and passive viewer groups exhibited similar test results right after the viewing event. However, the memory of the passive group participants was stronger than that of the active viewer group two weeks later. These findings suggest that active VR viewing inhibits one’s ability to create strong visual memories to some extent.

Image source: XD.Adobe

What exactly led to the findings is still inconclusive, but the researchers have come up with some hypotheses to throw light on the results. The most straightforward explanation states that the active group viewers were distracted by the surrounding elements of the room, and spent less time observing the paintings. However, how much time the active group spent looking at the paintings was not measured in the study. An alternative hypothesis is that the immersive nature of active VR scenarios piles up cognitive load on one’s brain, eventually leading to the demise of successful visual memory formation. An EEG study on cognitive processing whilst learning is showing that VR encounters could limit learning due to cognitive burden.

Based on the hypothesis of the researchers in the study, it can be assumed that the cognitive abilities of active viewing group participants were focused on sensory reception as opposed to paying attention to detail. Elaborating further, the researchers explained that the cognitive resources are engaged by sensory reception, leading to the active viewers focusing on sensory reception instead of examining the VR feature’s content. On the other hand, the passive viewing participants could recollect the paintings better as they did not have many sensory distractions.

The researchers will aim to find out how active VR experiences precisely impact visual memory formation and whether the same technology can be incorporated for enhancing object learning.

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